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Harvard to Limit Number of Petition Candidates Allowed to Serve on Board of Overseers to Six

Harvard's governing boards voted to limit the number of petition candidates that can join the Board of Overseers each year.
Harvard's governing boards voted to limit the number of petition candidates that can join the Board of Overseers each year. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Camille G. Caldera and Michelle G. Kurilla, Crimson Staff Writers

The Harvard Corporation and Board of Overseers approved recommendations that will limit the number of members of the Board of Overseers who are nominated via petitions, rather than the Alumni Association's nominating committee, to six out of 30 seats at any given time.

The policy change — announced in a letter from William F. Lee '72, the senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation, and R. Martin Chávez, the president of the Board of Overseers — was one of a number of recommendations in a report by a special committee of the Board of Overseers’s Election Working Group.

The approved recommendations — which come after a successful petition campaign advocating for fossil fuel divestment elected three members to the Board of Overseers last month — emphasize the need for the Board of Overseers to include a “strong preponderance of members who have been nominated for the Overseers ballot by a duly appointed nominating committee.”

The Board of Overseers is composed of 30 members elected in slates of five to serve six-year terms. As a result of the change, over the next five slates, a maximum of three members who are nominated by a petition may be elected to serve. The other 24 members must join the board after being nominated by the Harvard Alumni Association’s Nominating Committee.

“This approach will reinforce the essential role of the nominating committee – itself a diverse group of dedicated alumni who are appointed by the Harvard Alumni Association’s volunteer leadership and who include three current or recent Overseers,” Lee and Chávez wrote. “It will help assure that promising candidates identified by the nominating committee will be willing to stand for election.”

“It will preserve, with a reasonable limit, Harvard’s longstanding practice of allowing individuals the chance to qualify for the Overseers ballot by petition – an option that some have suggested might be discontinued,” they added.

The Board of Overseers Election Working Group was formed in 2015, and most recently, in 2019, helped introduce an online voting option. The special committee of alumni and Overseers behind the most recent recommendations was led by Margaret H. Marshall, the former chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

The Harvard Corporation and Board of Overseers also approved mandating close monitoring of campaign “trends and practices” in future elections to determine whether the structure of campaign activities must be changed.

The effort to monitor campaigns stems from a concern that “the annual Overseers elections not come to assume the character of partisan, platform-driven campaigns for political office, including fundraising and spending, extensive use of social media, and dedicated campaign organizations,” Lee and Chávez wrote.

The governance boards also adopted several recommendations to increase engagement from recent graduates, another central tenet of the petition campaign Harvard Forward ran this year.

Those measures, also listed in the letter, include encouraging the Harvard Alumni Association to “intensify its efforts to nominate outstanding recent graduates,” placing at least one recent graduate on visiting committees for various schools, and inviting at least one recent graduate to serve on the governing boards’ joint committee on alumni affairs and development.

The special committee’s report referenced both Harvard Forward and other recent petition campaigns, noting that there is “no reason to presume that the recent developments in Harvard’s Overseers elections will be transitory, rather than a preview of what the future might hold.”

In 2016, a slate of candidates known as “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard” called for the University to eliminate tuition and affirmative action. Though the members of the slate qualified for that year's ballot, none won seats on the Board.

“We are concerned by the prospect that, without a change in the current system, the Board might before long come to be populated more by members of issue-driven caucuses, sponsored by advocacy groups, and less by individuals who have emerged from a deliberative process in which a nominating committee focuses on their capacity to fulfill the broad-ranging responsibilities of board service,” the report reads. “We regard these concerns as sufficiently significant to warrant a change in current methods.”

Philip W. Lovejoy, Executive Director of the HAA, informed alumni of the change in an email Tuesday.

The University and Harvard Forward did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

—Staff writer Camille G. Caldera can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @camille_caldera.

—Staff writer Michelle G. Kurilla can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @MichelleKurilla.

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